*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

The mother of English prose

by
30 September 2016

In a new book, Janina Ramirez argues that Julian of Norwich should be seen as the female Chaucer

© Jason Bye/Alamy

Anchoress: a statue of Julian at Norwich Cathedral

Anchoress: a statue of Julian at Norwich Cathedral

MANY have speculated on the woman behind the name “Julian of Norwich”. It has been difficult to access the real identity of the author of Revelations of Divine Love, despite stoic re­­search. Some scholars argue that she must have been a nun who chose an anchorite’s life after many years in a convent — possibly the famous Carrow Abbey, in Norwich. Others argue that she was probably a lay­woman, perhaps with a hus­band and children whom she had lost to various plagues. Others still feel that they can identify her with a specific local noble family, and pin­point the place where she grew up.

All we can know with certainty, however, comes from Julian herself, in small details that she scatters through her book, although she gives very few clues.

A recent work on Julian seeks to identify her with a documented woman, Julian of Erpingham. She grew up as a member of one of the foremost noble families in Norwich, and her childhood home was 60 King Street, just a stone’s throw from the Church of St Julian and the anchorite’s cell.

The architect responsible for rebuilding Julian’s cell in the 1950s, after the site was severely damaged in the Second World War, re­­searched all women with the name “Julian” mentioned in 14th-century docu­ments around Norwich. One name is prominent, but disappears sud­denly, with no record of death, at the time that Julian of Norwich may have entered her cell — Julian of Erpingham.

She was the sister of a famous knight, Sir Thomas Erpingham, who fought at Agincourt, and was a trusted friend of the king, Edward III. Julian, his elder sister, is re­­corded as marrying twice, her first husband dying in 1373 — the same year as our Julian records receiving her revelations. Could the death of her husband have instigated a life-threatening sickness? The dates certainly match up.

Julian of Erpingham remarries after her first husband’s death, and has three children. This fits with the homely and motherly tone of Revelations of Divine Love, which abounds in descriptions and details that an enclosed nun would not necessarily focus on so heavily.

 

INDEED, despite suggestions that Julian of Norwich had been a nun at nearby Carrow Abbey, it is almost certain she had not spent her early life in a convent. There are no references whatsoever to the monastic way of life, and, instead, the book abounds in incidental descriptions of domestic settings, and the life of a wife and mother.

By 1393, Julian of Erpingham’s second husband had died, her eldest daughter had married, and her youngest was possibly fostered out — this is the date by which many believe the author of Revelations entered her cell. With two husbands dead, three children out in the world, and a set of revelations to ruminate on, the choice of enclosure as an anchorite at this stage in life might have seemed attractive to Julian of Erpingham.

The legacies from two husbands would have meant that she had the means to support herself. For an anchorite to be looked after by a maid, and provided with food and comfort for decades, was a costly affair. Any bishop interring an anchorite would want assurance that her family would be able to cover the costs.

It is impossible to state with certainty that Julian of Norwich was Julian of Erpingham. True, the male name is relatively rare in the late 14th century, and the dates of revelations and enclosure seem to fit. But Revelations of Divine Love remains as potent and significant whether we connect the author with an identifiable individual or not.

Unless more documents come to light directly connecting Julian of Norwich with a historically verifiable individual, she will have to remain largely unknown. All we can know for sure is what she tells us in her book, and at the heart of that lie 16 revelations received on 8 May 1373. This is the one date in Julian’s life we can be certain of, and it plunges her into the heart of one of England’s most turbulent periods.

 

THERE is an interesting dif­ference between the Short and Long Texts of Julian’s Revela­tions. In the shorter text, which she may have had recorded earlier in her life, she shows an awareness that her femininity holds her back. In distancing herself from accusations of “teaching” or “preach­­ing”, she writes “for I am a woman, ignorant, weak, and frail. But I know very well that what I am saying I have received through revelation from him who is the supreme teacher” (Short Text, Chapter 6).

And yet, when she reworks her ideas in the Long Text, the insecur­ities in her gender, and also her edu­­cation, are removed. Instead, the longer version attempts to work the female aspects of spirituality, revela­tion, and even the divine, into the text more completely.

A theme that has caught the at­­ten­tion of feminist readers of Julian’s text is her understanding of God as both loving father and mother. Out of 86 chapters, five are dedicated to expanding the idea of God as mother. This sounds radical from a modern perspective: were medieval writers, with their miso­gynistic treatment of women, really able to conceive of the deity in female terms?

Julian was, in fact, following a tradition of perceiving God as mother established centuries earlier, and expanded by writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Anselm of Canterbury. In this respect, she is not revolutionary, and is treading on suitably traditional ground. However, the ways in which she expands this idea, bringing her own femininity into the accounts and creating a homely image of God, are unique and fascinating. What is more, she does not simply introduce the idea of a feminine aspect to God to create emotional impact, as ear­lier writers do. To her, God is equally male and female: “As truly as God is our father, so truly is God our mother.”

 

JULIAN’s understanding of God as mother is not restricted to five chapters of the book — it per­meates the whole, and seems to be a linchpin rooting all her ideas about the divine. That Julian may have been a mother herself is suggested by the intimate love she describes God having for his creation, and the emphasis she places on seeing God’s love as enclosing like a womb.

Again, this may strike modern readers as radical, but womb im­­agery was expounded by a number of medieval theologians. In terms of the design of monasteries, the cent­ral cloister was understood as the womb, a place of enclosure at the very centre of the monastery, where monks and nuns found sanctuary.

Julian writes of being enclosed in love, like a child in the womb. Whether this comes from theolo­gical texts, or from her own experi­ence of growing a child in utero, it becomes a powerful image that continues the idea of God’s love being everywhere — upwards, in the ground, in all creation, and even inside us: “For as the body is clad in cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the chest, so are we, soul and body, clad and enclosed in the goodness of God” (Chapter 6).

 

JULIAN identifies with the uncon­ditional love of a mother, which “will not be broken by our of­­fences”. This lies in contrast with the conditional love of a father, who rewards his child for good behavi­our. Walter Hilton understands the love of God as achieved by degrees, like an ascent up a ladder. The more sinless a life you lead, the better works you do, the more you will deserve the father’s love.

Julian’s attitudes towards God as mother tie in with her attitudes towards sin. A mother will forgive anything a child does because of the overwhelming sense of love, born from having grown the child inside herself. This is the love that Julian can see in God.

The idea of a mother watching her child in its falling and blindness is also reflected in the system of mercy that Julian developed. In the parable of a lord and servant, the cloak that the servant receives is blue, symbolising steadfastness. The blue mantle of the Virgin Mary is something frequently emphasised in medieval art, and is bound up with the idea of the mother as merciful. If the servant “falls”, God as mother will look on with mercy, and reward the servant’s climb up from the pit.

Julian develops her idea of both God and Christ as mother more fully in the Long Text than in the Short Text. Alongside this, she sub­sumes Mary within the son, becoming an aspect of the “sensu­alite”, or humanity, of Christ. For her, Christ is the mother, and an intimate part of Mother Church.

She is not redefining the Trinity, although her conflation of the Virgin Mary with her son is very developed in her work. She specific­ally uses the masculine pronoun only when referring to Christ; so phrases will run: “Our mother Christ, he gave us . . .” Yet, through­out, Julian has managed to feminise Christ by conflating him with his mother, creating an allegory of Mary as understanding, grace, and sensuality, combined with Christ as the caring, loving saviour who would die rather than see those he loves suffer.

Mary as mother of Christ feels everything, and is the emotional conduit for Julian, herself enclosed in the feelings and emotions her visions have ignited. So she sees her love for Jesus as reflecting that of his mother; and, similarly, she sees herself as a “lover” of Christ.

 

WHY read Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love today? It is difficult to capture the magnificence of her work in a short introduction. Julian is unlike any other author I have en­­­counter­ed, and the reason her book is becoming increasingly pop­ular now is that her ideas are finally finding a footing within modern scholarship and Western spiritu­ality. Her time is now; and, having waited in the wings for centuries, she is ready to be heard.

Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love can obsess readers, captivate them for a lifetime, and offer support and solace during times of difficulty. I have inter­viewed people who have said that her book offered the only beacon of light through such dark times as the death of a child, dealing with cancer, and fighting in wars. And it seems that her work rewards more, the more you return to it.

Thomas Merton, the 20th-­century Trappist monk and mystic, describes how his relationship with Julian’s text developed. “Julian is without doubt one of the most won­derful of all Christian voices. She gets greater and greater in my eyes as I grow older, and whereas in the old days I used to be crazy about St John of the Cross, I would not exchange him now for Julian if you gave me the world and the Indies and all the Spanish mystics rolled up in one bundle. I think that Julian of Norwich is, with Newman, the greatest English theologian.”

Professor Vincent Gillespie describes it as “one of the first great masterpieces of English prose. . . In terms of the sheer beauty of her prose, there’s nobody else at that period who I think can really chal­­lenge her.” Rowan Williams states: “she is blazing a trail, doing some­thing unprecedented.”

If Chaucer is the father of English poetry, then Julian is the mother of English prose. But what she pro­duced was something beyond beautiful English literature. She crossed the boundaries between theology, philosophy, psychology, art, science, astrology, and even metaphysics. Her relevance as a great 14th-century brain is stag­ger­ing, but her role as a woman in this world of male intellectualism is something that also should be celebrated.

This is an edited extract from Julian of Norwich: A very brief history by Janina Ramirez, published tomorrow by SPCK (hardback, £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70); ISBN 978-0-281-07737-3).

 

*** 

 

ON THE one hand, we are invited to live into an as­­­surance of all things being made well. Nothing is out of the reach of God’s work­ing. This means living with a radical openness to all things as having God at work in them to make them well.

But, on the other hand, in many cases, big and small, per­sonal and historical, we can’t possibly see how this could be the case; it is even an affront to our suffering to pretend that we can. And, as Julian has made clear, this is not because we aren’t perceptive or clever or spiritual enough: it is because God has freely chosen not to make known the “Great Deed” by which all will be made well.

Furthermore, we damage our­selves if we attempt to spin the­ories that can explain this universal well-making.

We are left, then, in a interest­ing state: increasingly open to all things in the assumption that God is at work within them, but also feel­ing keenly at times that we can’t understand how this could be so.

On reflection, this seems like an honest and courageous way to live, in touch with reality because open in trust to its essential goodness — not having to cut it down to fit into a pre-planned theological un­­­der­standing. We can be present to the suffering and even the wrong­­­ness in our lives with greater curiosity and tenderness. We can trust that all is already included in God’s uni­versal well-making, and thus we can increasingly accept it, but we don’t have to work out how it might be redeemed.

This might be described as a state of openness, sensitivity, and assurance, which proceeds in trust and, at times, touches myster­iously on something of God’s joy.

 

Questions for reflection and discussion
Reflecting over your personal life (not the tragic events of world history), make a list of a few things that you can’t see ever being made well. There are tragedies in each of our lives that don’t seem open to redemption. Invite one of these into your awareness, and invite in God’s promise that this, too, will be made well. You are placing these exper­iences before God, and God is saying that they will be made well. What is it like to do this? What feelings arise? What in you resists this? What in you finds joy in this?

What is it like for you to be told that God is explicitly keeping “a secret” from you, and, for your benefit, is suggesting that you should not try to work this out — suggesting, in fact, that the more you try to figure it out, the further you will be from living with it? Can you believe that trying to work this out would be harmful to you? Why, or why not? Are you com­fort­able living with this unknowing, a kind of incom­pre­hension in which all the truths of life cannot finally be integrated?

 

This is an edited extract from The Drawing of This Love by Robert Fruehwirth (Canterbury Press, £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.69)).

Forthcoming Events

30 January 2021
How to Rage
An online day conference reflecting on theology, activism and the church   Book tickets

9 February 2021
Preaching in Lent, Holy Week and Easter
From the Festival of Preaching: save the date for a one-day online festival this February.

18 March 2021
Theology Slam Final

The competition for those aged 18-30 returns with a focus on the pandemic.    Find out more

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)